Please Don’t Use the Word “Justice” Unless You Mean It

It is increasingly common these days to see higher education organizations use the acronym “DEIJ” to stand for “Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Justice”. Sometimes you might even see it rearranged to spell “JEDI”. I believe it’s important that we reflect on the various traditions behind the word “justice” and think carefully about whether its use is warranted.

There are theories of justice dating back to Plato, and are probably justice scholars predating Plato that I don’t know about. Every major faith tradition has its own conception of justice. Justice can be approached from various disciplinary lenses: ethics, political philosophy, economics, for example. And of course, there are legal theories about justice.

In the context of diversity, equity, inclusivity work, the term “justice” is often invoked because of a desire to connect these ideas to “social justice”, which one might define as the work necessary to create a society in which people are able to receive their fair share of opportunities, resources, safety, and so forth, taking into account historical inequities.

But let’s also look at the way Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “justice”: (1) maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power; assignment of deserved reward or punishment; giving of due deserts, (2) punishment of an offender; retribution deemed appropriate for a crime, (3) the administration of law; due legal process; judicial proceedings.

There is a consistent theme throughout these different traditions and lenses of justice involving the righting of wrongs and of individuals being treated equitably. As I learned today from my 2022-23 ACE Fellows cohort, justice is more than just challenging inequities within a society or organization; it involves acknowledging past wrongs, repairing past harms, changing inequitable policies or practices, and committing to continual reflection so that wrongs are not perpetuated.

Given that understanding of the word “justice”, is it really the case that many DEI efforts really bring about justice? Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case.

For example, imagine that within a higher education institution, there are people who want to start an initiative to ensure greater racial and gender diversity among its faculty. They are thinking of describing their work as a “DEIJ” initiative. The “D” makes sense since they’re trying to bring about more diversity within the professoriate. The “E” makes sense in that they are trying to ensure equity in faculty search and promotion processes. And the “I” makes sense because of their desire to build a culture of inclusivity. But what would true justice look like with regards to faculty hiring and support in higher education?

If true justice involves acknowledging past wrongs, then this institution needs to be prepared to go back and look at all prior cases where a person of color was not granted tenure, prior cases where women were passed over for a faculty position, and prior cases where a person with a disability might have not been given what they need to thrive at an institution. In each of those cases, honest introspection would be needed to determine the extent to which the institution was at fault. And if wrongdoing was discovered, the institution would need to be prepared to admit to past wrongdoing and to repair those harms.

It seems impossible to me to imagine that any higher education institution would be willing to admit to a person that they were discriminated against in a hiring or promotion situation because they would be opening themselves up for legal liability. And yet, isn’t that what is meant by true justice? Justice in this situation would mean that the person that was discriminated against would be able to receive reparation for the harm that was caused.

Think about all the various realms of DEI work (student admissions, classroom pedagogy, faculty hiring and promotion, higher education leadership, etc.) and now imagine that J would really look like in each of those spheres. Are we truly prepared to look at our institutions to uncover the places where we have caused harm and to think about how to right those harms? Sadly, I suspect that we aren’t.

Consequently, I encourage us all to be cautious about adding “J” to “DEI”. By using the term “justice” and failing to actually carry out true justice, we trample on those who have previously been harmed by our institutions and we signal to others that our commitment to “JEDI” is no more than a passing fad. Soon, the “J” for “justice” will become as meaningless as “D” for “diversity” has become in some higher education spaces.

If you find yourself on a committee thinking about calling itself a “DEIJ Committee” or a program that claims to do “JEDI” work, then at minimum, I would hope that you will push yourself and the group to carefully define what justice means and then consider whether the committee or program really will live up to that definition. One might the word “justice” aspirationally, but even then I think everyone should be on board with what you are aspiring to and that your aspirations are genuine rather than just performative. From now on, I will also commit to doing the same.

Setting up Discord for Office Hours

Matt Spencer convinced me to try using Discord for office hours this semester to support students during remote instruction. I used Discord for a class this summer but didn’t play an active role in the server I created and mainly let students do what they wanted. It didn’t get a lot of traffic since I also was using Piazza and had separate office hours via Zoom.

This time around I’m going to hold office hours using Discord in addition to using it as a Piazza replacement. Advantages:

  • Discord can be the centralized place for both asynchronous and synchronous participation: students can message and voice/video chat with each other synchronously, or they can also peruse message histories within text channels and catch up on conversations by previous students.
  • One can pop in and out of different text and “voice channels” (really video+voice+screen share) very easily. So I can have a group of students talking about Problem 1 and another group talking about Problem 2 and I can pop back and forth easily.
  • Also, I like that students don’t need to install the desktop client. And since many students have been using Discord, they will already have accounts. That reduces the friction to enrollment and usage.
  • Very fine-grained controls for who can do what.
  • Free.

Some drawbacks are that Discord has a very steep learning curve and overtones of a “gamer” culture that might not be super inviting to everyone. I’m trying to mitigate those things by (1) recording the steps that I took to set up my Discord server here (maybe someone out there might find it helpful?) and (2) really be explicit about the norms of participation in the server.

If you’re not familiar with Discord, you might just try watching some videos or trying it out a bit.

After account creation with Discord, I used the following steps to set up my Discord server. I am using Carl-bot to require users to agree to a set of rules before being able to access the server. The instructions are at a rather high level because Discord has so many different buttons to tweak everything and these are liable to change in the future so I’m avoiding specific settings. I encourage others to peruse all of the settings.

  1. Create new channel using built-in template “Study Group >> For a club or community”. Choose an icon to help others easily identify the server in case they belong to multiple servers.
  2. Set up your text and voice channels. (See my welcome message below.) In the channel #welcome-and-rules I added my welcome message and rules that users have to agree to to gain access to the server. Those are reproduced below.
  3. Turn on Developer Mode (under User Settings >> Advanced), if you haven’t already done so. This will enable overrides of permissions for channels. Then go to the #welcome-and-rules settings and under Permissions set View Channel and Read Message History to enable and Send Messages to disable. (This allows users who have not yet accepted the rules to still be able to see the rules.)
  4. Add Carl-bot to your server by browsing to and clicking on the Invite link at the top. You’ll have to choose which server you’re going to add Carl-bot to.
  5. Back in your server, set up roles (under Server Settings).
    • @everyone is the starting role for new users. I gave these users zero permissions except for the ability to Change Nickname.
    • Students is the role that students will have, after they agree to the rules. They need to be able to see channels, read and post messages, etc.
    • TAs is the role for teaching assistants. I chose to give them to ability to mute other users, change nicknames for other students, kick students off the server.
    • Remember to reorder your roles so that Carl-bot is higher than Students. This enables Carl-bot to have the ability to set users to the Students role.
  6. Now time to set up Carl-bot! (I followed the instructions here
    • First find the message ID for the message in #welcome-and-rules that will contain the emote that lets users accept the rules. (This is message #3 below.) Right-click that message to get its message ID into the clipboard.
    • Then go to any text channel and type
      ?rr add #welcome-and-rules [messageID] :ballot_box_with_check: Students
      This command will add the emote :ballot_box_with_check: to that message, and once the user clicks on the emote, they will be given the Students role.
    • Then type
      ?rr verify [messageID]
      This command will set that message as the one that will verify users.
    • Once you get confirmations that it worked, you can delete these messages to keep things tidy.
  7. (optional) I set up a test account and used that to test if everything is correct.

Here are the three messages that I posted in #welcome-and-rules (based in large part on Matt’s post).

Message #1:

Welcome to the E72 Spring 2021 Discord Server!

This is a place where you can chat with other students, TAs, and instructors about E72.  If you're new to Discord, please check out resources like

This server has a bunch of different channels to organize our conversations:
#office-hours is a text channel that we'll watch when one of us @TAs or @Instructors is available for office hours. This is for live Q&A help. We'll also be hopping in and out of various voice channels as needed.
#skillz is for discussion of the weekly skills problems
#hw1-3 is a text channel for discussing Homework 1 Problem 3. (Generalizes to #hwx-y.)
#off-topic is for everything else non E72-related
_ _

Message #2:

Here are some ground rules to help us make this a welcoming, supportive space for everyone in E72.  You will need to agree to these rules before you can participate on this server.

1. Set your Nickname to be your first and last name. Feel free to add pronouns if you like. 
2. Post messages in the appropriate channels to keep things organized. Feel free to suggest new channels!
3. Remember that you're posting in a semi-public place where comments can be read by others. Consider the racial/gendered dimensions to comments you post. (Would someone with a different identity than you see the comment in the same way?) Also, avoid comments that could be construed as mean-spirited or hurtful, even if they are consensual jokes between friends. Positive, encouraging messages are greatly appreciated!
4. Let's keep this a PG-13 space.  Save your spicy language and images for other venues.
5. Use the /spoiler tag if you're posting information about a problem that others might not yet be ready to see. (See Using the /spoiler tag will cause your message to be greyed out. If you see a message like that, just click or tap on it to see the message. Do not post answers to homework questions here, even with the spoiler tag. 
6. We created this server to encourage students to collaborate with each other. However, that collaboration has boundaries, beyond which are plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. Review the syllabus for more details or ask an instructor if you're ever unsure about something.
_ _

Message #3: (This is the one whose ID you need.)

IMPORTANT:  All new users to this Discord server must read these guidelines and agree to them before they are allowed to use the rest of the site. Please click on the check mark below once you've read the guidelines and agree to them.

And here’s what it looks like for new users.

Once a new user accepts the invitation to your Discord server, they’ll need to click on the blue check box to accept the rules. Then, Carl-bot will change their role from @eveyrone to Students, enabling them to be able to see all of the other text and voice channels.

Note #1: As Matt mentioned, it is strongly recommend for all students and instructors to turn off the items under “Rich Presence” in User Settings >> Privacy & Safety. This will disallow others from being able to see what games you’re playing while you’re using Discord.

Note #2: At this point, I am not purchasing “Nitro” to “boost” my server. We’ll see how the default audio/video transmission speeds work for everyone. If we need to increase those then we might pay to increase those by “boosting” the server.

Note #3: Invitation link to this office hours Discord server will be behind password in our school’s learning management system so I’m not too worried about spammers getting access to it. If that is not the case for you, then stricter account approval and message moderation policies might be appropriate.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity Criteria for College and University Faculty Reappointment and Promotion (continuously updated)

From 2020-22, some of my Mudd colleagues and I served on a committee to help our campus revise its faculty notebook language around reappointment and promotion. To prepare for that work, we looked for examples of colleges and universities who have incorporated DEI-related criteria in their reappointment and promotion procedures.

Many colleges and universities say that they value diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI), but don’t always live out those aspirations in their institutional policies and practices. One common place where the rhetoric about DEI and institutional practices deviate is the set of criteria used when evaluating faculty (of all ranks and types) for reappointment and promotion.

AAUP’s 2022 Survey of Tenure Practices revealed that 21.5% of surveyed institutions had diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) criteria in their reappointment, tenure, and promotion standards. And, I strongly suspect that many of those institutions might be like Harvey Mudd’s pre-2022 language, in that DEI-related work was recognized, but not required. (As of July 1, 2022, Mudd’s new language says that “effective teaching requires, among other characteristics, equitable and inclusive engagement of all students.”)

As the adage goes, we assess what we care about. If an institution has goals relating to diversity, equity, and inclusivity, then activities that further those goals should be considered, among others, when determining if a faculty member will be recognized, retained or promoted. Moreover, this issue disparately impacts many women faculty and faculty of color, because of the invisible labor that many of us put in to mentor students, revise our courses to incorporate content related to equity and justice, create more welcoming learning environments, serve on committees, etc. If we can get these activities to “count” toward reappointment and promotion, that might help more of us to be retained and recognized at our institutions.

In the United States, the practice of asking candidates for open faculty positions to submit some kind of statement relating to their interests in and efforts on expanding access, inclusivity, diversity, justice, etc., is becoming more widespread. Whether or not you agree with that practice, if your institution asks for such a statement, then presumably certain DEI-related activities are valued by the school. Again, the question is whether those activities count in one’s annual evaluations and/or reappointment and promotion decisions.

If you know of a higher-ed institution that has successfully incorporated DEI-related criteria into its reappointment and promotion policies, please get in touch with me. I would love to speak with the people who helped champion those changes in an effort to spread what was learned around our institutions. I will try to keep some notes from these conversations below.

Link to Spreadsheet:
Acknowledgements: Nancy Lape (Harvey Mudd College), Jeff Groves (Harvey Mudd College), Helen Kim (Whitman College), Claire Gibbons (Pierce College), Dharni Vasudevan and Doris Santoro (Bowdoin College), and many others. (Note: If you notice any errors and omissions, please let me know.)

In my conversations with campus leaders at other institutions so far, these are some common themes that have emerged about the process by which those campuses incorporated these DEI-related criteria in their reappointment and promotion policies.

  • The policies and procedures around reappointment and tenure are sacred at many institutions because they get at the heart of what is valued at an institution. These policies and documents are often very difficult to change; usually full vote of the faculty is required to revise these documents. Efforts to change reappointment and promotion criteria to include DEI-related activities seem to be more successful when campus leadership initiate robust and sustained conversations around these topics so that faculty can weigh in and feel greater ownership about proposed changes before voting on them.
  • There are other possible changes to reappointment and promotion policies and procedures besides changing the criteria; for example, hiring practices, policies around leaves, annual assessment mechanisms, etc. Institutions who want to make changes quickly might start at some looking at those issues first before changing reappointment and promotion criteria.
  • Special consideration is needed for pre-tenure faculty and VITAL faculty for whom changes to reappointment and promotion criteria are important and anxiety-producing. Care should be given to how these faculty are able to participate in these conversations.
  • If inclusive forms of teaching are to expected, then it is also important to amplify and publicize all of the different professional development opportunities (either that already exist, or that will be put into place) so that faculty can develop the pedagogical skills that will be expected. It may also be helpful to reinforce the idea that inclusive teaching is not static goal but more of a shift in mindset and evolving journey that one goes on.

Favorite time saver: Custom searches in browser address bar

Now for something different: a time-saving tech tip!

Most modern browsers allow for custom searches to be issued right from the address bar. I use these shortcuts many times a day. Read how to set these up at

If you find yourself going to the same web site often to perform a certain kind of search, this tip allows you to go to the site and initiate the search in one step. This tip, combined with keyboard shortcuts for opening new tabs (ctrl-T on Chrome) and putting the focus into the address bar (ctrl-L or alt-D), can really speed up your browsing.

Here are some custom browser searches I’ve enabled:

d = google dictionary search

ga = Google Address book

gd = Google docs

gd0 = Google Drive search (acct 0)

gd1 = Google Drive search (acct 1)

gk = Google Keep

map = Google Maps search

scholar = google scholar search

w = wikipedia

y = Youtube search

yelp = yelp in Los Angeles

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 8)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5 Pt6 Pt7

Last Friday was the final meeting of this class. The outside students from Claremont were not present as it was finals week.

The inside students wanted to do a bit of math and just chit chat. We spent about an hour thinking about Fermat’s theorem on the sum of two squares (the only odd primes that can be written as the sum of squares of two natural numbers are the ones that are one more than a multiple of 4). We wrote out a whole bunch of prime numbers on the board and then we all attempted to write them as the sum of two squares. Then, we looked at our work and tried to figure out which ones could be written as the sum of two squares and which couldn’t. It was pretty satisfying!

After we concluded our work on that problem, we chatted a bit about mathematics and how the students envisioned mathematics being a part of their lives. One student is leaving prison in just a few days. He said that he will be taking more classes to try to finish up his bachelor’s degree. Another student said that he intends to enroll in college when he gets out and work toward a degree in mechanical engineering. Another will parole in a few months and he wants to be a mathematics teacher. The inside students also had a lot of questions for me about what graduate studies in mathematics was like and what kind of research I do, we so chatted about that.

It was intensely sad to say goodbye. I really enjoyed spending time with each and every person in this course and we got to know each other in a way that rarely happens in my usual math classes.

In retrospect, I think the thing that I will take away the most is the way that this particular pedagogical approach (working in groups with very little direct instruction, letting students’ interests drive the course) felt so right for this setting (a course with both traditional college students and incarcerated students in a prison). It felt re-humanizing, joyful, and fun. My thoughts now turn to why I’m not also using similar strategies in my usual Harvey Mudd College classes.

What’s next for Inside Out at the Claremont Colleges? One unfortunate issue about our Inside Out program at the Claremont Colleges is that we’re limited right now by who is trained to teach Inside Out and who is available in any given semester. (For me, teaching Inside Out was something that I did on top of my regular teaching load, but others are able to get their Inside Out course counted as part of their regular teaching load.) The consequence is that the courses form a strange patchwork of unrelated courses.

One exciting development is that the Claremont Colleges are working toward the ability to offer inside students a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies starting next fall. The reason for the choice of organizational studies is that a community college that also is working in this facility is offering several associates degrees in psychology, politics, and business. So, this organizational studies BA would build on all three of those pathways nicely.

It would be great to be able to offer more advanced mathematics courses, but both sides of the supply and demand for such courses is not robust enough. So, for now, I will look forward to the next time that I get to offer this class again inside.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 7)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5 Pt6

This blog post consists of guest posts by two of my Claremont Colleges students in this course. I asked all of the students to write a reflection at the end of the class. I gave them the option of sharing their reflection on this blog if they chose to. (I edited slightly to preserve anonymity and to improve clarity for audiences outside of the Claremont Colleges.)

This was an incredible experience! When I first heard of the Inside Out program, I thought that it sounded like an exercise in some kind of savior-dynamics that took advantage of the inside students to create some sort of cultural experience for the outside students. We feel privileged to be able to walk in (and out) of the prison, for the incarcerated students, it is a cursed life. The whole idea of Inside Out left a bad taste in my mouth.

I signed up because (a) the math sounded interesting (b) this was the only course at the Claremont Colleges that related to mathematics education that I had heard of. The Inside Out experience was an added–though sort of undesired–bonus.

After my first week, my perspective had changed. It was clear from day one that all the students in the class were there together to practice math–to grow as students and people. For the first half of the semester certain topics were unheard of. We talked about education: what classes we were in, what our aspirations were. We saw each other as humans, students. We chatted and looked for patterns in numbers, but seldom did we discuss the elephantous divide between us.

At some point in the semester that started to shift. Inside students would drop “I have 6 more years here, so I should be able to get a bachelor’s degree before I get out.” It would be a blip in the morale-o-meter, but we would keep working, ignoring what our minds and hearts were actually telling us.

Around that same time, inside students would ask what we were doing on the weekends and instead of our usual vague “nothing” or “studying” we would let slip that we were going to the beach or to visit our parents or something.

It was around Thanksgiving that I felt like I knew the inside students. I could tell their interest in the math, knew what they were likely to rant about, knew where some of them had in-prison jobs, what their personalities were like. They knew that we would go home at Thanksgiving to family and travel.

By the end of the semester, though we didn’t pry for information, inside students talked about their court dates and hassles. I could almost feel bits of my heart breaking hearing these stories. Leaving the prison, I would shake off the melancholy on long runs on a different type of tax-funded land: national parks. I don’t know if the inside students were fairly tried, if their sentence reflects some guilty crime. That is not what Inside Out asks you to consider (though it crosses my mind). Inside Out asks you to consider seeing people you might not normally encounter and without needing to hear their stories to sit and learn together. To share in our collective humanity by succumbing to the unknown and to a pursuit of thought.

In this case that pursuit was working together to identify patterns, the malleability of numbers, the interesting feats of special cases of numbers (primes / square numbers), and to block new concepts together. What I had thought would be the crux of my Inside Out classroom experience was tangential to learning about beautiful, human relationships and an oppressive, not uplifting system.

As you look back over the problem sets and work that we have done, what are some things that you have enjoyed learning about the most? The way everything we had been learning about in this course came together on the last day of class was close to mind-blowing. It was amazing to feel like I understood encryption from the ground up–what had felt like basic math in previous classes suddenly became important building blocks for a complicated encryption system. This was one of the first times that I felt like I truly understood a complicated concept in math beyond just plugging things into equations.

What were some of the most challenging things that you encountered in this course and how did you face those challenges? I think the most challenging part of this class was the power dynamic between the inside and outside students. Every week the guys I’d work with would assume that because I’m attending the Claremont Colleges that I’d be better at understanding the problem set for the day than they’d be, when in reality, when we got down to it, I was often one of the last people to have it click. Also, I had several conversations where my inside classmates would be surprised that we got class credit for the course because to them it seemed that we were just volunteering. I forget who said this on the last day of class, but someone joked that this class might actually be an anthropology course for the outside students. I think what these guys were picking up on was very real–it feels uncomfortable that I can just choose to take a class in prison to see what prisons and the people inside them are like, and then just leave. A large part of what drew me to this class was the fact that I could learn in an environment I’d never been before and have classmates I normally wouldn’t have, and I think that the guys on the inside could sense that motive. I don’t know how I or anyone else in the Inside Out program can avoid this dynamic.

What have you learned about yourself in relation to mathematics as a result of this course? This is going to sound so corny, but I learned it doesn’t really matter if I’m good at math, it matters that I’m having fun. And I was having fun!! Perhaps another way of looking at it is, if I’m having fun while doing math, it doesn’t mean I’m not learning. This class was the first math class I’ve taken that didn’t make me feel “good” or “bad” at math. I was just doing it and not taking away any personal value judgments from that. This class inspired me to take another related math class next semester.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 6)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5

A lot of feelings today, which was the day of our last class in which both outside (Claremont) students and inside (incarcerated) students were together. Next week is finals week for our students, so our outside students don’t attend class.

We were able to successfully get through all of the mathematical machinery that we needed to understand the RSA cryptosystem, and we spent the day going through some examples, encrypting and decrypting messages (for very small numbers, since we only had four-function calculators). Fun times! It felt so satisfying that RSA was such a nice way to tie together everything that we had been doing. I had no idea that this was going to be the “goal” of the class when we set out. It was an off-comment that I made one day about how number theory can be used in cryptography that seemed to be interesting to students, and so I plotted a course for us to end with RSA.

But the most meaningful moment today was this: One of our inside students has not been able to attend class for the last few days because he was reassigned to some other kind of vocational class (against his will) that met at the same time as our class. Nevertheless, we have been exchanging work so he has been keeping up with the class. Today, in his packet of work he included a written reflection and a note that he wanted me to share it with the whole class.

In this reflection, he explained that he originally signed up for a lot of classes but didn’t get into any of them except this number theory course. He was not excited about it. He said that he avoids social contact with anyone and considers it a good thing if he can get through an entire day without talking to anyone. Coming to this class and being forced to work with other people was initially a big challenge for him. But, over time, he found the interactions with other students really enjoyable and he grew to love coming to class and working with others. He concluded his reflection by thanking all of us in the class for helping him grow mathematically and also socially. Was hard to read his reflection today without crying.

The outside students said their goodbyes to the inside students and vice versa. They shared their appreciations for each other. One guy on the inside thanked us for helping to restore his faith in people “on the outside” because we interacted with him as fellow human beings.

So many feels today. Next week will be my last week with the guys inside.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 5)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4

Class is going really well, at least from a mathematical perspective. Next week is our last class meeting and we are on track to be able to wrap up the whole class in which we use all of the tools that we’ve been building up over the entire semester to explain how the RSA cryptosystem works. (This book by my colleague Mohamed Omar has been super helpful.)

Today, we took care of the final two mathematical tools that we’ll need to understand the RSA cryptosystem.

(1) We learned about how to use the Euclidean Algorithm to find the greatest common divisors between any two numbers. The students were particularly enamored with the “square-cutting” visual (see below) that I learned from Bowen Kerins as we have co-taught the math course for the Teacher Leadership Program at IAS/Park City Mathematics Institute.

(See for an animated version.)

(2) We also learned how to solve problems of the form “ax=1 in mod n”. We learned the conditions under which such problems will have a solution.

And, a few students got to the fun part, which is that while (1) and (2) seem unrelated, it turns out that you can use (1) to help you find the answer to (2).

Finally, I just got a copy of Mathematical Outreach: Explorations in Social Justice Around the Globe, edited by Hector Rosario. In it, Robert Scott makes some great observations about teaching mathematics in prisons. One quote has been resonating in my head since I read it:

“A math pedagogy premised upon following the rules, accepting that there is only one right answer, and relying on practice/repetition in order to habituate oneself to pre-determined axioms would seem to reprise the culture of incarceration itself.”

Robert Scott, “Math Instructors’ Critical Reflections on Teaching in Prison”, page 213 of Mathematical Outreach: Explorations in Social Justice Around the Globe, edited by Hector Rosario, 2020

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 4)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3

Not all of the staff who work in prisons are supportive of prison education programs. This can pose challenges for anyone who teaches inside a correctional facility.

I have a colleague from the Claremont Colleges who teaches at the same time that I do, in an adjoining classroom at CRC. Both of us had a new correctional officer (CO) overseeing our two classes last Friday. This week, that CO made several allegations about us to the warden, including a claim that our students were passing their phone numbers to the inside students and touching/hugging them in class. These allegations are completely false, but have caused quite a bit of trouble for us.

Normally, the CO has very little interaction with our class. The CO unlocks a gate and lets us all into a small compound with several “portables” where classes are held. The CO usually never comes into the classroom during class. The CO comes in at the end of the class to dismiss the incarcerated students. Since the CO does not watch us interacting with each other, there would be no way for the CO to make these kinds of allegations.

Last week, I asked this new CO to watch my class for a few minutes as I needed to turn in my attendance sheet to an administrator in the next portable building. I was gone for no more than a few minutes. During that time, my students were working in small groups on some mathematical tasks. When I came back, they were still working. The CO said nothing to us at that point. We only learned about the allegations afterwards from our Justice Education program coordinator, who had been helping to diffuse the situation.

I have absolutely no doubt that everyone conducted themselves appropriately while I stepped out of my class, just as they have during every other class so far. No one passed each other phone numbers or hugged during that time. Why in the world would they do that when a CO was present? Yet, I have no way to prove that they didn’t do so.

When the CO lodged these complaints to her warden, she didn’t say whether it happened in my class or in my colleague’s class. Either way, neither of us allowed anything inappropriate to happen. I have no idea why this CO would make these allegations. Perhaps she was genuinely concerned about our safety (we have been told repeatedly that these guys are smart and are master manipulators), but I wonder if maybe she just doesn’t want us to be there. One inside student explained it to me this way today: some people who work at the prison are angry that incarcerated students are getting these college classes for free when their own children don’t get those classes for free. I can see why some people might find that jarring, but it’s a rather short-sighted view to take on incarceration and education.

As it’s the day after Thanksgiving here in the U.S. today, our regular college classes are not in session. But, my colleague and I went to the prison anyway. As one incarcerated student said, “Of course we’ll be there on Friday [after Thanksgiving], It’s not like I have other places to go to or things to do!”

I had brought some donuts for the incarcerated students (that is what they wanted), but due to some trouble with paperwork, they wouldn’t let me bring in the donuts. That was a big disappointment for both me and the inside students.

The absence of donuts and the allegations by the CO sparked a vigorous discussion today about prisons. Many of the guys shared how they feel aggrieved by the criminal justice system and the prison staff. Some expressed a deep distrust and skepticism that things will ever change for the better. To them, the prison industrial complex is a system that reproduces itself through nepotism and relies on people re-offending and returning to prison–there are few incentives for the system to reduce recidivism.

And yet, we still did great math today and shared a lot of laughs. That joy melted together with other feelings: the frustration of being donut-stymied, the anger of being accused of something we didn’t do, and my gratitude for the stories that had been shared.

An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 3)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about this Inside Out course lately because of a growing dissatisfaction that I’m having about the class and also that some students are expressing.

One of the things I really wanted to do was to create a mathematics class that rehumanizes rather than dehumanizes, and I think that while students are generally feeling very positive about the class, I do feel like I am slipping into prior habits about teaching mathematics.

In previous class sessions, we have been sitting in four groups of 4-5 students and I have been visibly randomly assigning students to the groups for the purpose of having students work with each other and recognize each others’ mathematical talents.

This past Friday, one of my students suggested that we sit in one large circle instead of smaller groups. The result of that was that students generally still worked with the people that they happened to sit next to (there were still about 5 6 clumps of people) but there was also a small number of students who were quicker than the rest in making mathematical connections who were talking across the whole room. That increased interaction added another layer to the small group interactions because it helped to spread ideas faster across the room. It also, however, had the effect of reinforcing a particular kind of mathematical competence in the classroom–the kind where mathematical competence is associated with being quick or fast at getting answers. And, that is something that I’m really trying hard to break away from–I want students to be able to see themselves as being mathematical brilliant in lots of different ways, not just being quick and fast.

I cannot blame this narrow view of mathematical competence on this large circle classroom arrangement. Certainly a lot of it comes from the larger society and the way that many of us learn mathematics in schools–we are taught to value speed and accuracy and to associate that as being smart. But, I also take responsibility in the way that I have been designing the tasks that students are doing.

The materials I’ve been creating for this Introduction to Number Theory are derived from the 2009 Park City Mathematics Institute Teacher Leadership Program morning mathematics class (book version). Because of the mathematical preparation level of the students in the course, I have removed many pieces of the original PCMI course materials so that the main thrust of the work that we’ve been doing has been to tabulate various number-theoretic functions, determining if they are multiplicative or not, and looking for patterns.

The problems in and of themselves, are not group worthy. They can be done by individuals working on their own, and they are presented in numerical order so there is a sense of completing problems in a sequence, one by one. The design of the materials, therefore, reinforces the very thing that I am trying to avoid: a perspective on mathematical competence that values speed and accuracy. Some students in the class get farther along than others in the course, and it’s become clear who those students are. Other students turn to those students for help, which is great, but I don’t see the reverse happening as often.

At the end of each class, I have been spending about 15 minutes in a whole-group discussion in which students share out their mathematical observations and questions, and give gratitude to each other. I was trying to steer students in pointing out the different ways that we all are mathematically competent. Most of the comments lately have been along the lines of “I’m really grateful to XX for explaining YY to me so clearly.”

All of this is really not germane to teaching a course in a prison; this kind of thing happens in math classrooms all around the world. I’m hyper-focused on creating a more humanizing course mainly because I’m teaching in what might be the ultimate dehumanizing environment: a prison. But, the reality is that we need to work toward more rehumanizing classrooms all around the world.

So, what to do? One way to make a classroom more rehumanizing is to listen to your students and find out what they want and need. I did that last Friday by asking them to answer three questions anonymously: (1) What mathematical connections are you still wondering about in this class? (2) What can I (your instructor) do to make this class more awesome? (3) What can you do to make this class more awesome?

Generally, students’ comments about the class were positive. However, there were some comments about the course feeling repetitive (we keep doing the same kind of activity over and over again) and people wondering what the point of this mathematics is. Both of those I will try to address in this Friday’s class. Not sure yet how as it’s only Tuesday. 🙂 Stay tuned.

Another thing that I have heard from students in this facility is that there are other mathematics courses that are being offered by a local community college, but they are often very introductory courses. Some students are ready for and are yearning for more advanced courses. I have inadvertently compounded this problem by adding yet another introductory course (in number theory), because I assumed that there were students who would not be ready to dive more deeply into mathematics. There definitely are students whose mathematical preparation is not sufficient for them to dive as deeply into this course as I originally intended, but then they are others who are ready for this course and more.

I think I will need to be rethink the course a bit. I will probably shift the course material away from the PCMI materials and incorporate other materials related to number theory. I will need to include more practical applications uses of the mathematics that we’re learning. And finally, I think I will need to more explicitly address the idea of mathematical competencies, perhaps by providing a partial list of the ways that students have been mathematically brilliant in the class.